I woke up on the 7th of March at 7.30AM, with a bit of a sore back from the hard mattress but amazingly refreshed. I was very surprised that I had managed to sleep the whole night through - my inner clock was now set for the Japanese time, sayonara jet lag!
Yuta had to go to some meetings with prospective employers but he might be free later at night.
This suited me to a tee, as during the planning stage of my trip I had contacted many Goodwill Guide Clubs across Japan. These, I find, are quite unique organisations of this country as they offer foreign visitors the opportunity to get to know local people who altruistically give some of their time to show visitors around their region, thus strengthening ties between Japan and overseas. The volunteers are mostly retired men and women, which I was quite excited about, and for Tokyo I had requested the services of a volunteer guide from Tokyo Free Guide and we would spend all day together until dinner time.
We had agreed to meet up in front of Higashi-Tokorozawa Station, so I asked Yuta if there was any nice cafe on the way where I could make a brief stop to grab some breakfast. After giving it a thought, he suggested that I try Bell Teco. So there I headed!
And what a recommendation! Bell Teco styles itself as a French boulangerie, but in fact I found it to be a rather delightful fusion of the French savoir-faire in baking and the cuteness of Japanese confectionery. It was only 8AM, but the shelves were already filled with freshly baked pastries aplenty, sweet and savoury, and the kitchen was open-plan with bakers and cookers working with gloves, surgical masks and spotless white uniforms - more than a kitchen, it looked like an operating theatre!
It was a very local shop, which meant both very affordable prices but also no English menu or English-speaking staff. Still, just as I opened the door and the bell warned them that a customer had come in, all the staff stopped their chores for a second and, turning to me, they bowed and uttered, almost in unison, a long and high-pitched:
This greeting translates into something like 'Welcome to our business' and it is repeated like a mantra to every client approaching a shop, restaurant or cafeteria all across Japan. I'd soon get used to it!
So I got the pastry that caught my eye and I headed to the girl at the counter, who also wore a surgical mask. After unsuccessfully trying to work out the menu on the blackboard, I tried my luck with the most standardised coffee I could think of:
G: (face of relief) コーヒーラッテ、はい！ (Koohii ratte, hai!)
I confirmed what I had learned during my teenage otaku years: that Japan has adopted hundreds, if not thousands of foreign words, specially from English, which they funnily transcribe into katakana adapting their pronunciation to the capabilities of Japanese language. This would save me throughout my trip!
So coffee and pastry on hand for 500円 (£3.40) I headed to Higashi-Tokorozawa Station, where I arrived only a few minutes after our agreed meeting time - perhaps late for Japanese standards? - and then and there I met my guide for Tokyo, one of the most memorable: Takayuki-san.
Takayuki-san is a married 61-years-old gentleman who retired after spending a lifetime working as an engineer for the office equipment multinational Konica Minolta. Late into his career, unfortunately, he lost his job, so in his last working years he held several hospitality positions before taking early retirement. He explained to me that he loves getting to know foreigners, show them the true Japan and of course keep practising his hard-earned English skills. He is truly interested in my personal story so, by the time we reached our destination for the day, Shinjuku (新宿), we had already broken the ice between us.
We left Shinjuku Station to face a rainy, chilly and damp day. Takayuki-san kindly asked whether I'm still interested in seeing Shinjuku-gyoen (新宿御苑), the main public park in the district, given the bad weather. I laughed at his thoughtful question: after almost 4 years in Scotland, a little drizzle doesn't deter me! And so we headed into the gardens bravely wielding our umbrellas.
We could tell it was still the last breath of winter: the grass was yellow and dry, and most of the trees were nothing more than dormant skeletons.
Some life had started to grow, though. The most premature cherry and plum trees had begun to bloom and they inundated the otherwise dead spots of the garden with their bright and youthful colours.
They were so captivating we couldn't avoid asking someone to take a picture of us together in front of the first hanami of the sakura in 2019!
After a stroll around Shinjuku-Gyoen under the now heavier rain, Takayuki-san took me to a special place in the district: Hanazono-jinja (花園神社), a shintō (神道, indigenous animistic religion of Japan) shrine founded in the mid-17th century, which has stunningly withstood the greed of Japan's economic boom and relentless urban development. The shrine is hence funnily fitted in-between modern buildings, and you would miss it completely if it weren't for its welcoming stone torii announcing the presence of something sacred.
As we walked under the first torii we were welcomed by two Chinese lions, common guardians of shintō shrines with their distinctive mouths: one has an open mouth, symbolising life, and the other has it shut, symbolising death and hence a whole cycle of existence. Be it Chinese lions, samurai or steroid-muscled Niō (仁王), temple guardians pretty much always adopt this symbology.
In the main shrine precinct I noticed a sort of fountain. Takayuki-san explained that it is customary for shintō believers to use the water in this fountain to purify themselves before praying to the gods.
I found it an interesting coincidence with Islam, whose believers practise ablutions before praying at the mosque, so I ask Takayuki-san how to do it properly:
First, you fill in one of the wooden buckets with water, and you wash the tips of your fingers, first the left hand, and then the right one, changing the bucket from one hand to the other. Do not use all the water, but if you do, re-fill the bucket.
Next, scoop with your left hand, pour some water and slurp it, but don't swallow it! Just rinse your mouth and spit it afterwards. Again, you should have some water left in the bucket.
With the remaining water, tilt the bucket towards you so that the water irrigates the floor, quenching the thirst of the gods.
I listened carefully and tried. From then onward, I'd always purify myself at every shintō shrine I visited, often to the amazement of many locals at my expertise!
In shintō there are no graphical representation of the deities, and it is considered that the deities physically dwell in the shrines. This is why it's quite disrespectful to take pictures of the main shrines from a short distance, where the most important deities live. Inside the shrine there is only a mirror, which represents the deity, and big sleigh bells hanging from ropes that you are meant to ring loudly before praying to the gods. Once again, I asked Takayuki-san how to do it properly:
You first ring the bell loudly, so that the deity can hear you and pay attention.
Then, you bow twice and clap your hands twice, strongly because gods despise the weakness of halfhearted clapping.
You then lower your head and make your wish. You don't need to mentally recite any specific prayer, you can cut to the chase and make a wish straightaway. Also, any category of wish is OK, shintō deities are not fussy.
Finally, one last bow as a sign of gratitude and respect, and done deal!
I laughed at the practicality and conciseness of shintō deities: if only they knew that in Catholicism we must recite tens of Hail Marys to get our sins washed out!
A colourful board full of written wooden tablets caught my eye. Takayuki-san explained that these are ema (絵馬), votive tablets on which believers write their wishes and, after the corresponding donation, they hang them so that at the end of the day monks can convey them to the deities, who do the hard work of making them come true. He also said that most shintō and Buddhist temples in Japan have them, which I could corroborate later on, and that the picture on the back of the ema is different for each temple, depending on the deity(ies) enshrined in them.
Finally, we stopped at a secondary shrine on one side of the precinct. I could see many stone foxes around this little altar, all of them wearing red bibs. Takayuki-san explained to me that this was an inari (稲荷) shrine, that is a shrine for the foxes, which in Japanese mythology are messengers of the deities, but also in themselves good omens for fertility, good harvest and general business success. In consequence, many temples are devoted to the foxes, the most famous being the Fushimi Inari Temple in Kyoto, the one with countless orange torii that was made popular by the movie 'Memories of a Geisha' - which, by the way, I will visit later on in my trip.
I liked this spot, so I asked Takayuki-san to take a picture!
We then went for lunch at a Japanese curry restaurant that Takayuki-san knew of, it was delicious!
Once our bellies were full, we headed to the NTT Intercomunications Centre, a gallery about futuristic Japan which had a special exhibition on videogames I was very interested in. Takayuki-san did warn me that he knows nothing about videogames, so he was clueless at what we'd see.
Is this his very Japanese way to say that he'd rather skip this bit? - I thought.
Consequently I asked him if he preferred to so something else, but he insisted he was happy to accompany me, so there we went anyway!
It was quite interesting. The exhibits had no information in English, which was a pity, but there were some very creative and appealing videogames made specially for the exhibition, with engrossing and artistic graphics.
Without a shade of a doubt, the star of the exhibition for me was a protest RPG called Path Out. Although it was created in 2017, it is made in the classical style of pre-Playstation Final Fantasy games. We moved a 2D character around a mansion and its outdoors, once majestic but now in shambles, and we had to find certain objects that we had to use in a certain manner in order to leave the place.
I started playing naively, and it was only when I entered one of the rooms in the game that I saw a portrait on a wall which froze my blood. Despite the poor resolution of the game, it was clearly Bashar al-Asad, the Syrian dictator! All of a sudden it all made sense: the game was set in current war-stroke Syria, and that's why the setting was ruinous and the outdoors were full of military checkpoints.
I felt shocked that they cold use such a horrible current drama for sheer entertainment, shock that turned into surprise, sadness and outrage. I wondered whether it had actually been the intention of the creator to make us feel that way. After checking that he himself is a Syrian refugee I felt much more at ease.
During the time we spent at the NTT Intercommunications Centre Takayuki-san followed me around like a patient shadow, and uncomfortable as I felt at the thought he might be bored, I tried my best to engage with him. He politely refused to play, but I got him engaged by giving him some decision power in the games I played! It felt like a tender moment between grandson and grandfather: a huge digital divide between them but the best intentions from both!
Finally, as the sun set, we headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (東京都庁) , where you could get on a lift for free and head up to the 202m-high observation decks to get great panoramic views of the endless megalopolis that is Tokyo, with 13 million inhabitants!
At this stage I thought that Takayuki-san might be tired and may want to leave, but he told me he was having a great time and that he was happy to stay for dinner and show me around the frenzy of Kabukicho (歌舞伎町), the red light area in Shinjuku. I accepted straightaway, happy to be able to have him a bit longer, as I also felt very well in his company.
Kabukicho received its name from a Kabuki theatre that was planned for the area which never came to fruition. It is known for its buzzing nightlife catering for adult tastes, and its sight doesn't disappoint. What during the day had looked like an incredibly tidy bit of a megalopolis, after dusk it had become a mesmerising kaleidoscope of neon lights, kanji, kana and pictures of extremely sensual ladies and surprisingly effeminate guys. The big avenues progressively turned into narrow alleyways crammed with people and izakaya after izakaya, one looking dodgier than the previous one. This is the Tokyo I was expecting!
We finally settled for dinner at Yama-chan, a very popular izakaya chain specialising in spicy chicken wings. It was very busy, but we managed to get a couple of seats at the counter where we could see all the action taking place in the kitchen while we enjoyed our food. The chicken wings were very hot, but extremely addictive! Of course, I seasoned our meal with a locally-brewed Japanese beer.
By then Takayuki-san and I had developed a good deal of trust. Curious and annoying as I am, I dared to start asking politically sensitive questions - I should've been a journalist! I started by asking about his opinion about the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and about the figure of the Emperor in Japan, as the imminent abdication of the current Emperor Akihito in favour of his son Naruhito and the mystery around the name for the new era - Akihito had chosen Heisei (平成) for his, but nobody knew what Naruhito would choose next - was in everyone's conversations just like Brexit is in the UK. But my bomb question came next:
How can it be that Japan and the US are currently close allies when America blew to the ground Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II? Have you forgiven them for all the hell they caused?
A little spark shone in Takayuki-san's eyes and then his gaze turned sombre. He took his time, and he replied:
In Japanese society it is very hard to blame somebody for an action, as dreadful as it may be. Instead, we put the emphasis on the action itself. Japan fully condemns the use of nuclear weapons; we've unfortunately been first-hand witnesses of their destructive power. We generally don't demand an official apology from America and probably will never do. We (Japan) also did some terrible things during WWII that I'm personally ashamed of. So there's no benefit in the blaming culture, what is important is to move forward.
It wouldn't be until much later in my journey, in Hiroshima, that I would truly grasp the disgrace that the atomic bombs were. But even at this point it was hard for me to think this way. I believe that if America had made my own country the target of such atrocities, even if I hadn't experienced them myself, I'd still be resentful towards them. I admired Takayuki-san and his peers for their ability to put their feelings aside for the sake of progress.
The day was really over by now, so we headed back to the train station. We got on the same train as my stop was on his way home. Halfway through, Takayuki-san opened his bag and took out a wrapped box.
I've had an extremely pleasant day today. I'm glad to have had the chance to meet you and I would like to give you this present. Open it when you get at home, or whenever you want.
I didn't have a clue of what's inside the box then, but my heart swelled in affection anyway for this man that I had only met a few hours earlier. We said farewell when we reached my station, he wished me a good trip in Japan and we promised to meet up again during my last days in Tokyo.
I left the station with a stupid smile in my face, a grin of satisfaction at the amount of things I had learned and witnessed, but specially at the feeling that I'd just made a friend - was the omikuji right after all? - and that this country was now a bit less foreign to me.
It wouldn't be until days later that I opened the gift, but there it was: